Nearly 300 Charges Against Weed Dispensary Workers Have Been Dropped
Toronto police say raiding dispensaries is not a waste of resources.
Grad Murray and Houston Bongeli were both arrested in dispensary raids. Photo by author
Nearly 300 charges against weed dispensary employees in Toronto were dropped in the last week, according to the lawyer representing the workers.
On Thursday, a Crown prosecutor agreed to withdraw approximately 156 charges against 78 former workers at Canna Clinics in Toronto in exchange for signed peace bonds requiring them to avoid working in dispensaries for the next two years. This comes just a week after another slew of charges—approximately 110—were dropped relating to the Project Lincoln raids that targeted seven Canna Clinics and six residences in Toronto as well as six Canna Clinics in BC last summer.
“It’s a progressive approach between the Crown and the defence to deal with a problem that police are dumping on the court system,” said Jack Lloyd, a lawyer representing the workers.
“Toronto police should not be arresting young people simply for working at or being inside medical cannabis dispensaries.”
VICE has contacted the Public Prosecution Service of Canada for an exact breakdown of the withdrawn charges and will update this story with that information. Last year, VICE News revealed that 72 of the charges in police’s massive Project Claudia raids in 2016 had been withdrawn or stayed. The fact that the offences aren’t sticking raises questions as to the efficacy of continuing to crack down on dispensaries.
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash told VICE charges being dropped doesn’t mean the raids are a waste of time and money.
“A peace bond is a consequence,” he said, describing dispensaries as “illegal organizations that are generating large amounts of cash.” Police seized more than $350,000 during Project Lincoln as well as roughly 250 kilograms of cannabis.
However, Pugash said there is a “compelling argument” that the owners and operators of the dispensaries often aren’t on site when arrest warrants are being issued. Frequently, low-level employees are the ones arrested.
The courtroom was packed with young people Thursday, including many people of colour. In an assembly-line-like fashion, they were divided into smaller groups based on when and where they were raided, and made their way in front of the judge to sign their peace bonds.
The workers who spoke to VICE said they started out as budtenders and made between $40,000 to $58,000 a year. They said Canna Clinic paid for their legal bills and that the dispensaries take in anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 a day.
Outside the courtroom, there was a sense of relief—people were hugging and speaking excitedly, having just ended what was undoubtedly a stressful ordeal. But there was also a unanimous feeling that the cops and courts are needlessly going after dispensary workers, and that the future of legalization looks unfair to the people who fought against prohibition.
“It’s a waste of money. They’re stopping people from being comfortable doing what they like. It’s no different from going to a bar and getting a drink or a shot,” said Houston Bongeli, 22, who was working at Canna Clinic’s Yonge and Eglinton location when it was raided last June. He was charged with possession for the purpose of trafficking and possession of the proceeds of crime.
Bongeli described working at the dispensary as his “dream job.”
“I love weed,” he said, noting he would make a commute from Oshawa to Toronto every day to get to work. “I dedicated myself to this company.”
He and others who spoke to VICE Thursday said sometimes cops would park outside of the dispensaries and watch customers coming in and out. They believe it was an intimidation tactic.
“I was in a hot paddy wagon for four to five hours,” said Grad Murray, 30, describing his arrest at Canna Clinic. “They turned off the AC… They were taking their sweet time.”
Murray, who is black, spoke at length about the issues surrounding enforcement of prohibition laws, which disproportionately target people of colour. He pointed out that in places like Oakland, victims of the war on drugs are being given priority to get into the legal market and he said he wants to establish an organization to push for that here.
“That’s something the Canadian government should be doing. They say they’re going to look into it, I don’t really believe that,” he said.
When VICE asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the Oakland model at a town hall last April, he said the government is focused on making sure there are no “criminal elements” in Canada’s licensed producer system. “If someone is convicted drug trafficking already, I don’t think we’re going to reward them with an opportunity to sell it legally.”
He did however admit it was “unfair” that people of colour are more likely to get arrested for possession. A VICE News investigation found that almost all of the country’s LPs are run by white men; even ex-cops are cashing in on the green market.
“It’s a slap in the face,” said one former Canna Clinic employee whose charge was withdrawn Thursday.
Murray said the new weed laws will leave people of colour vulnerable to more arrests.
“They’re introducing so many more regulations and laws and punishments that are even harsher [than the current laws].” Under the new regime, selling weed without a license could result in 14 years of jail time.
Under Ontario’s plan, only government-run stores—essentially dispensaries—will be allowed to sell weed.
“They take [our] business model and still lock people up for it,” said Murray. He also noted that legal weed businesses will require background checks and therefore could eliminate candidates who have been convicted for weed-related crimes. Alberta has said minor possession convictions will not automatically eliminate potential dispensary operators.
The federal government has yet to promise amnesty for individuals punished by prohibition.
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